Soccer / Premier League

Rotation: The New Scourge of Israeli Soccer

Coaches of top league teams adopt European ways to share the burden between players, preventing their teams from fulfilling their potential.

In recent seasons Israeli teams playing in Europe have taken after the fashion of managers of Europe's larger clubs and begun rotating squad players in different games, in order to share the strain between different players and negotiate the burden between European nights and the local league. The guru of rotation in Europe, Rafa Benitez, made the system his trademark in his Liverpool years, gaining the nickname "Tinkerman." Benitez kept a detailed diary of his system of distributing minutes on the pitch between players according to the importance of the game. Coaches in Israel are now trying to emulate Benitez's ways.

"Israeli soccer players cannot play 180 minutes within three days," former Israeli national team coach Luis Fernandez once said, explaining his widespread changes in the starting eleven in two Euro qualifiers. "The rhythm of the game in Israel and Europe is different, making rotation necessary."

Maccabi Haifa's coach, Arik Benadu, rotated his starting eleven for the league game in Ashdod, making five changes. His experiment resulted in a 3-2 loss leading to criticism that he took his rivals lightly. Maccabi Tel Aviv's coach, Paulo Sousa, did the same against Apoel Nicosia in the Europa League last Thursday, with his mind on Monday night’s Maccabi Haifa game. It cost him two important points which might come back to haunt him in later stages. Both Benadu and Sousa said they would continue to rotate the starting eleven in order to save the players throughout the long season, while competing for all trophies in Israel and Europe.

Since Thursday I have discussed the matter with several coaches. One of these, a senior figure in Israeli soccer, said, "It's too early in the season to rotate; there weren't any Toto Cup games, and the players haven't had enough games in comparison to Europe, where the league begins earlier. A player aspiring for European standards doesn't need to be rested after four or five games. One can understand the coaches but they should have waited a while before tinkering with their teams."

Still, even if Benadu and Sousa had employed their strongest starting eleven it would not have guaranteed them victories in Europe, but, at least, would have helped the teams first eleven gel and improve. Another league coach said: "There's no reason to rotate in Israeli soccer. In Europe the larger clubs have a huge amount of games, the leagues are longer, and they often must negotiate two cups and a European competition as well. In Israel, where the players' effort during a full ninety minutes is comparable to thirty minutes in a top European league, more should be demanded of the players. Israeli players must be prepared to play two games a week; they simply must train in a wiser way."

At the time, Fernandez constantly criticized the level and methods of Israeli training sessions, insisting that Israeli players weren't prepared properly for games. Dror Shimshon, the national team's fitness coach, agrees that there is a problem with Israeli players' physical fitness levels. Shimshon, who works both with Israelis playing in the local league and Israelis playing abroad, cannot ignore the gaps between the two groups. While believing that there is no reason that Israeli soccer players' fitness levels should be lower than that of their European counterparts, he suggests this is a result of misconstrued training plans, incorrect division between fitness training and playing sessions, and, especially, the conduct of the players themselves. "Some players fake it during training, believing that they fool the coach when he isn't looking; ultimately, they fool themselves," Shimshon says. "In Europe, a coach can sit in the dressing room and still everything will go according to the prepared plan. But this depends on cooperation by the players."

Shimshon says that in recent years he has noticed a radical change in the training sessions of Yuval Spungin and Rami Gershon, who both currently play in Belgium. According to Shimshon, one of the more dedicated players is Eytan Tibi, who insists on holding individual post-training drills after each training session. Shimshon adds that pre-game drills are also crucial but many players tend to take them too easily.

Common wisdom has it that success in Europe often means failure in the local league. When Hapoel Tel Aviv was eliminated from the Europa League this summer, club officials said that at least they could now focus on the league. They expect Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa drain themselves, which will work in their favor, they say. Indeed, Haifa and Maccabi Tel Aviv's squads do not offer sufficient cover for each position on the pitch. Benadu and Sousa would be better off offering a regular regimen of soccer to their starting eleven players both in Europe and in the local league, while stressing the importance of training, diet and the belief that Israeli players can, indeed, play twice a week. The rotation system might lead both clubs to a short European season.

Both teams meet Monday night in Haifa. For all other clubs, the issue of rotation is irrelevant. Elisha Levy, Yuval Naim, Eli Cohen, Shlomi Dora, Nir Klinger, Barak Bachar and all the others will focus solely on trying to grab three points from every match. Nothing will make them change their starting eleven, apart from slight adjustments due to injuries and suspensions.

Until Israeli teams truly reach European levels, no other approach is really necessary.

Sharon Bukov